Hollywood Under Hays
To calm concerns about loosening standards for sex and violence during the talkies’ formative years, censors Will Hays and Joseph Breen were hired to keep Hollywood on a tight leash. Although some directors found ways around the pair’s Motion Picture Production Code (a.k.a. the Hays Code), rebellious films such as Red-Headed Woman, Scarface and Freaks only strengthened censors’ resolve, and for decades the studios were on notice to steer around risqué and antisocial behavior.
Post–World War I Hollywood simmered with lust and gusto. But early in the 1920s the party boiled over with scandal. Silent-screen funnyman Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was accused of rape in 1921, and heartthrob Wallace Reid turned out to be a morphine addict. Arbuckle’s career was ruined (though he was later acquitted), and Reid died in 1923 while in rehab. Hearing public cries for reform, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America elected Postmaster General Will Hays, a Presbyterian elder, as its president. His charge: to clean up the movies. In 1930 he introduced a lengthy moral code to govern film studios’ work. The Hays Code banned everything from the “more intimate parts of the human body” to the “wrong” dances, like burlesque “coochie” dances and the high-kicking cancan. Initially enforcement of the code was lax, and movies became even edgier. Choreographer Busby Berkeley’s musical Gold Diggers of 1933 features scantily clad (even for today) showgirls jiggling onstage. Cartoons were also racy. Big-eyed flapper Betty Boop (created by animator Max Fleischer in 1930) wore a cleavage-and-garter-revealing minidress and shook her hips dangerously. In 1934 Hays hired hard-nosed Joseph Breen to enforce the code. Breen declared Boop “suggestive of immorality.”
Since the Middle Ages, red hair has been associated with licentiousness. But the brazen shade has rarely been more colorful than in the black-and-white film Red-Headed Woman. Actor Jean Harlow, wearing a wig to hide her signature platinum-blond hair, plays the titular redhead, a secretary who will sleep with anyone to better her social position. The movie was a slap in the rear to the many Hays Code prohibitions: Harlow briefly appears topless, and this rosy provocateur is not ultimately punished for her behavior. In the end, she is seen lazily carousing with a marquis in France. The movie cemented Harlow’s status as a sex symbol, but Will Hays placed her in his “Doom Book,” a list of more than a hundred people considered menaces to morality. Shortly afterward, Hays and his censors effectively eliminated nudity and even near-nudity in major films. A naked swimming scene was altered in Cedric Gibbons’s Tarzan and His Mate (1934). Howard Hughes’s Western The Outlaw (1943) was sidelined for an erotic poster of buxom star Jane Russell. Even animated sex symbol Betty Boop was made over with a long dress and a boyfriend, after which she started losing screen time.
Will Hays’s enforcer, Joseph Breen, did not attend parties. He worked, went to church and spent time with his wife and six kids. Red-Headed Woman, then, was probably particularly distressing to him. Jean Harlow as Lillian—with her curves and curls—barely works, barely dresses, drinks excessively and breaks up a marriage. At one point she even carries on two affairs simultaneously.
Red-Headed Woman was released two years before Breen began helming Hollywood censorship. Once installed, he seized the opportunity to fortify the Hays Code, which stated that adultery “is never a fit subject for comedy.” He announced, “The vulgar, the cheap, and the tawdry is out.” Under Breen’s watch, the Hays Code’s conservative views of relationships went unchallenged (although, ironically, Hays himself had been divorced and remarried): “Correct standards of life…shall be presented,” “Sex perversion or any inference to it is forbidden,” “Miscegenation…is forbidden.” As a result, adulterers of golden age cinema often meet with death, as in Double Indemnity (1944), and sweethearts end up married, as in My Man Godfrey (1936). The mischievous last line of Godfrey belongs to the bride just before the wedding: “Stand still, Godfrey. It’ll all be over in a minute.”
In one of the first commercially screened movies, The Kiss (1896), two actors lock lips for 23 seconds. Under the Hays Code, that film would have been banned as an example of “excessive and lustful kissing.” According to the code, lips were allowed to meet for only three seconds. In 1946, during the Hays heyday, director Alfred Hitchcock staged a two-and-a-half-minute kiss between Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in Notorious. Hitchcock outmaneuvered the censors by continuously breaking up the bussing for the odd word or sensual stare, never exceeding the prescribed time.
Such craftiness was common for directors under Hays’s tyranny. Preston Sturges’s comedy The Lady Eve (1941) coyly mocks the code by staging a seduction scene in an armchair instead of the banned bed a few feet away; censors required that a couple filmed in bed have one foot (of the possible four) on the floor.
The only way to sidestep the code completely was to release a film independently—not as easy then as today. The producers of Child Bride (1938), for instance, avoided the studios and made a movie that focuses on the lack of child-protection laws and shows a 12-year-old girl swimming naked.
Gangsters were celebrities in the early 1930s. Crime boss Al Capone appeared with a snarky smile on a 1930 cover of Time magazine, and urban outlaw characters soon invaded the silver screen. Little Caesar and The Public Enemy were released in 1931, carving out a genre for mobster crime. The next year, director Howard Hawks upped the ante with Scarface. Grittier than anything that came before, the movie tells the story of Tony Camonte (Paul Muni), a psychotic gangster with a sister complex and a tommy gun. Scarface was sacrilege to the Hays Code, which explicitly advised that “evil is not presented alluringly.” As Camonte kills his way to the top of the underworld, he amasses sharp, expensive clothes, grabs the eye of a beautiful girl and has fun all the while. Will Hays feared people would be drawn to such a violent, indecent profession, and indeed, perhaps coincidentally, a year later bank robber John Dillinger’s name was on every tongue. Dillinger was like cinema incarnate—a swashbuckler, a prison breaker. But Hays proclaimed, “No motion picture based on the exploits of John Dillinger will be produced, distributed or exhibited.”
Red-Headed Woman and Scarface employ venerable plot mechanisms: sex and violence, the main targets of the Hays Code. Both films were released before the code was strictly enforced, but their makers nevertheless opted for surgery to appease censors and ensure continued screenings; to that end, even honey-tongued producer Irving Thalberg allowed Red-Headed Woman to undergo 17 cuts. Scarface begins with a curious note proclaiming, “This picture is an indictment of gang rule.” Still, the Hays Office demanded a new ending so the bad guy could get his just deserts. When censors refused to condone the revised film, producer Howard Hughes released it anyway.
Resistance by filmmakers and public demand for realism proved the downfall of the Hays Code. To fans’ delight, directors over the decades increasingly illuminated bedrooms and dark alleys. Prolific director Otto Preminger proved the sharpest thorn in the censors’ side. He made Man With the Golden Arm (1955), casting Frank Sinatra as a heroin addict; Anatomy of a Murder (1959), tackling rape and revenge killing; and Advise & Consent (1962), depicting a homosexual senator. No longer enforceable, the Hays Code was abandoned in 1968 and replaced with today’s movie-rating system.
Tony Camonte, the protagonist of Scarface, has a disfiguring scar under his left eye, symbolically marking him as an outcast. Camonte lives on society’s fringes, with crooks and killers. In Tod Browning’s film Freaks, released the same year, the characters (played by real-life circus performers) are congenitally disfigured—some born shorter than most, some without limbs, some with a conjoined twin. Mainstream society has labeled them freakish and forces them to the fringe as well. When a “normal” woman, Cleopatra, marries into their ranks, they accept her, proclaiming she is “One of us, one of us!” Horrified, she screams her rejections. Many viewers had the same reaction, and some complained to censor Will Hays. One critic claimed the movie targeted “morbid persons who enjoy gazing upon unfortunate, misshapen, cruelly deformed humanity.” The backlash forced producers to dramatically cut the film (the excised footage is lost) and permanently damaged Browning’s career.
Despite initial controversies, Scarface and Freaks have survived ensuing decades of cinematic censorship. Today film critics consider them classics, and their outcast characters have been reeled back in by empathetic fans, who may be imagined chanting, “We accept you, one of us, one of us.”